5 Q's: Stephen Witt, author of "How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy"

Today "Five Questions" were put to Stephen Witt, author of the fascinating new book "How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy." It's an essential read for anyone interested in the digital evolution of music, and we talked about Darwinism, label arrogance and ignorance, concept albums and his favorite format.


I can't decide if the story you tell is best explained as "chaos theory," "musical Darwinism," or just plain willful ignorance and arrogance on the part of record companies – or perhaps elements of all three. What do you think?

Darwinism is the best description. Two new technologies—mp3 compression and home consumer broadband—arrived at exactly the same time. Almost no one saw this coming, and in that sense it was a classic case of evolutionary disruption, comparable to the arrival of a new, invasive species in the ecosystem. The music industry was certainly arrogant, but they had always been concerned about piracy. Only this time, they didn’t understand where the next wave of piracy would come from. They were worried about the CD burner!

I've long espoused the irony that the "future-forward" internet has effectively plunged the music industry back into the 50s. MP3s have replaced 7" singles and YouTube has effectively become THE place for this generation’s discovery of music, replacing both radio and shows like American Bandstand. Your thoughts?

It’s even worse than that. Music is evolving from a purchasable commodity to a subscribable utility. At least you had to buy the seven-inch singles. Now you can just stream them without paying. (The labels might collect a small amount of revenue from selling ads against the song, but really this is a pittance.) In this sense, the whole concept of “owning” a song is outmoded. We’re moving to a world of omnipresent tunes, available on demand over the airwaves. In such a world the classic music label business model makes little sense.

Had the labels been more forward-thinking and not kept their heads stuck in the sand for so long, do you think there was ever a possibility of converting Napster from a rogue service to a legit one or was the “free music genie” permanently out of the bottle?

In the PC era, users had total freedom to share and distribute files without oversight. This made copyright-holders vulnerable: there was very little they could do to limit the home consumer’s ability to reproduce infringing files. The labels certainly made missteps, but in the end I don’t think there’s anything they could have done — the technology was just there. With the move to the smartphone, though, this trend is reversing. The labels and the technologists are co-operating to limit the freedom of the user. As a result, piracy on the smartphone is much less of a problem than it was on the desktop.

What is the impact of the download culture on musicianship?  Artists no longer have to issue LPs. The "concept album" — for good or ill  — is deader than a dinosaur. No one is ever going to produce a Tommy-type rock opera ever again. Aren't some of today's biggest stars really what we used to call "one hit wonders" because that is all they have to be?

I recently suggested the same thing to Pitchfork editor Ryan Dombal. He countered that numerous people had in fact come out with great LPs recently, even in 2015. Some, like Rae Sremmurd’s Sremmlife, are simply collections of hits, but others, like Father John Misty’s I Love You Honeybear, are coherent concept albums, released to critical praise and widespread audience approval. So I think pronouncements of the death of the album are premature. Musicians are still interested in this form, even if the technology has outgrown it.

Vinyl, CD, or MP3 at home?  What's your personal format of choice?

None of the above. I subscribe to Spotify and stream everything now. I’ve also deleted most of the locally-stored music on my hard drive. What’s the point?


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